What's in Your Belly Button? (And Other Places We Are Still Finding New Species)

Photo from unclefuz | flickr.com

I may be wrong to speak on behalf of all Starfish readers, but when I hear a story about a recently discovered species (or a species that has recently gone extinct, for that matter), my mind automatically creates an image of an emerging eerie-looking lizard with disproportionally small limbs, or the devastating disappearance of a cute tree-living bear-like creature.  With extinction events occurring at an unprecedented rate, contributing to the current mass extinction, it can sometimes seem as though Earth is simply losing many of its species.  What may come as good news, then, is that we are continuing to find new species, often times in the most bizarre of places. Even belly buttons. 

The discovery of new species doesn’t only occur in largely unexplored areas such as dense tropical rainforests or extreme cold regions (again, as I would initially think), but rather right in our own backyards – literally.  Er, make that in your own home.  What began as more of a joke than a real laboratory experiment eventually turned into a great biological discovery.  An undergraduate student at North Carolina State University decided (for whatever reason) to swab samples from a peer’s navel (aseptically, let’s hope).  Once researchers got news of this, they asked sixty other students to do the same.  Shockingly, the team may have discovered 1,458 new species.  One individual even hosted a bacterium known only to exist in Japan, despite that he had never been there. It makes you want to find out what’s in your own belly button…almost. NC State is now on the hunt for more new species thriving in armpits (uber yuck).

In other parts of the world, species discoveries that ‘wouldn’t-have-happened-if-I-didn’t…’ are discovering organisms even bigger than those that live in our belly buttons (or so I hope).  In Tanzania, a new species of chameleon was discovered by a researcher after he examined the stomach contents of a snake he startled and consequently made vomit (I promise my next entry will not be this unpleasant).  If he hadn’t been so intrigued by the remnants of the snake’s last meal, Kinyongia magomberae, or the Magombera chameleon, may remain undiscovered today.

Let’s also take a moment to recognize the large number of potential new species currently stored in laboratory drawers, waiting to be analyzed.  There is an estimated 35,000 plant specimens alone awaiting new species status.  Typically, it takes about 30-40 years to confirm whether or not a specimen is in fact a unique species, which is a particularly long delay for short-lived species.  Some may even go extinct before they are officially recognized as a new species. You know the phrase, “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone…”?  Perhaps the saying has yet to be this true.

I usually like to close with a lesson of sorts, and despite my talk of belly button specimens and vomit, there actually is something to be said about the large number of species we are discovering almost by ‘accident’.  Justification for habitat destruction and modification becomes substantially more difficult, particularly when the justification is along the lines of ‘causing no foreseeable harm to any species’.  Even with thorough environmental assessment and ecological consulting, it is nearly impossible to ensure we have accounted for all possible species – especially when we don’t even know they exist.